With presidential contenders Barack Obama and Mitt Romney currently tied in the polls, the outcome of the November election is likely to be decided by how a handful of "swing" states vote. That will make a few densely populated counties in each swing state the main battleground for the fall campaign, and the most important will be Fairfax County in Virginia.
To understand why this is so, you have to grasp how crucial Virginia's 13 electoral-college votes are to both parties, and what a decisive role Fairfax County will play in deciding who gets them. Presidential candidates need 270 votes in the college to win, and since voters are actually casting their ballots for slates of electors pledged to one or the other candidate, whoever gets a majority in each state wins all that state's electoral-college votes. Virginia currently has 13 electoral-college votes, reflecting the fact that it has two senators and 11 representatives in Congress.
Thirteen votes doesn't sound like a lot in a system with 538 electors, but according to the authoritative RealClearPolitics web-site, the two prospective presidential candidates are nearly tied right now with Obama looking likely to claim 221 electoral-college votes and Romney 181, leaving 136 votes as toss-ups that either candidate might win in swing states such as Colorado and Florida.
Virginia is one of the states deemed too close to call, and this year it looks poised to be the kingmaker because of the way the other swing states will split. As Helene Cooper put it in the New York Times on May 4, "With Virginia, Mr. Obama can lose Ohio and still win re-election. With Virginia, he can lose Florida and still win re-election." But without Virginia, Obama looks doomed -- as Romney may be if he loses the Old Dominion's electoral-college votes. So 13 electoral-college votes can mean a lot when the national electorate is evenly divided, as it is today.
The way the electoral system works, though, it isn't just a handful of swing states that are likely to decide which candidate wins in November, it's a handful of counties within those states. In the case of Fairfax County, its 1.1 million residents represent one in seven of all Virginians, and so it bulks very large in the determination of which slate of electors will get the most votes. In 2008, candidate Obama attracted 310,000 votes in Fairfax, which was more than his margin of victory in the state. No other county in the state contributed even a third of that number.
So it isn't surprising that President Obama has found dozens of excuses for visiting Northern Virginia since he was inaugurated, because without the support of voters in Fairfax and adjacent jurisdictions right across the Potomac from the District of Columbia, he would have no hope of carrying Virginia in his reelection campaign. After all, Obama was the first Democratic presidential contender that the state has supported in the general election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. He has to carry Fairfax and a few other areas by huge margins to make up for the many rural counties where Romney is sure to dominate the polls in November.
But that brings us to a peculiarity of Fairfax County that Obama's political handlers don't seem to have considered much. Although the demographics of Fairfax appear similar to those of suburban counties around other big cities, Fairfax is inordinately dependent on defense spending for its status as one of the nation's wealthiest jurisdictions. By some estimates, one out of four jobs in the county is tied directly or indirectly to the military. The county is dotted with military bases and intelligence sites such as CIA headquarters, and most of its biggest private-sector employers are defense contractors like General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Science Applications International.
So although affluent, highly educated Fairfax looks like prime Obama country, its job mix is different from that of other places in the Mid-Atlantic states that Obama is counting on like New York's Westchester County. The same holds true for some of the other Virginia jurisdictions where Obama ran up big majorities in 2008, such as the Hampton Roads-Norfolk-Newport News metro area in the state's tidewater region, which hosts the biggest concentration of military bases in the world. Virginia receives one out of ten dollars that the Pentagon spends, and Fairfax County is no exception to that rule. In fact, it is a prime beneficiary of the military-industrial complex.
This may be part of the reason why Obama has been unusually supportive of military spending for a progressive Democrat. When last year's Budget Control Act mandated cutting half a trillion dollars out of Pentagon spending over the next ten years, officials were able to find most of the required cuts by simply scaling back the administration's planned increases to military budgets in future years. In the past, progressive administrations have not been noted for raising military outlays as overseas conflicts wound down.
However, only half of the defense cuts mandated by the budget law have begun to take effect, and now another half trillion dollars in cuts is poised to trigger on January 2, cutting the Pentagon's base budget by ten percent in fiscal 2013 and subsequent years. Studies indicate that Virginia will be hit harder than just about any other state, with 87,000 jobs disappearing in 2013 and 115,000 in 2014. Reporter Patrick O'Conner warned in the Wall Street Journal on July 9 that the prospect of widespread layoffs in the military-industrial complex "could undercut Mr. Obama in battleground states heavily dependent on military spending, particularly Virginia." Which brings us back to Fairfax County. Nobody seriously believes that Romney can carry a county that went over 60 percent for Obama the last time around. There are too many government workers and liberals in the county for that to happen. However, with hundreds of thousands of northern Virginians worried about their defense jobs in a second Obama Administration, it is quite possible Obama will receive less votes in the county -- maybe enough less so that Romney can accumulate a majority statewide, winning Virginia's 13 electoral-college votes.
Defense contractors are turning up the heat on the White House by threatening to send out notices to hundreds of thousands of defense workers on election eve warning of potential job losses if budget cuts take effect. The contractors want early action by Obama to either avert the legislated defense cuts or at least provide some guidance on how they should prepare. So far, the White House hasn't been responsive despite Romney's pledge to restore military funds cut on Obama's watch. However, if the president's political advisors see evidence that defense cuts are starting to affect voter sentiment in Fairfax and other defense-heavy counties in Virginia, it's a safe bet Obama will be all over the issue.